BRICK – The school district’s Special Services Department has been developing programs designed to lower out-of-district costs for the placement of special needs students, resulting in cost savings of 32 percent in recent years, said Department Director Kristen Hanson during a recent Board of Education meeting.
During the 2017-2018 school year, the district spent $5,194,961 for out-of-district placements, Hanson said. Projected costs for next year are $3,547,046, representing the 32 percent savings.
Classification of special needs students has dropped three percent overall, Hanson added.
Hanson said the special needs budget is being built to support the following department priorities: to create programs in-district, and to develop strong programs for behavioral disabilities, autism, and students with multiple disabilities (MD).
“By strengthening these programs, we can more consistently serve our students in-district where they can have access to their grade-level peers and their neighborhood schools,” she said.
As students who have been placed in out-of-district schools graduate, they are not being replaced with additional students, she added.
“Child Study Team members are considering in-district programs first, as required by code, and students are being placed and supported in-district,” Hanson said.
Staff are being trained to meet behavioral, emotional and social needs of students, which Hanson said is critical in order to continue to maintain more challenging academic and behavioral students in-district.
Hanson said, “we need to continue intentional training of teachers to build capacity in our support staff and provide teachers with techniques and support personnel.That must be a top priority in the department.”
It was noted that a number of special needs programs have been developed, reorganized and strengthened over the last school year, including the behavioral disabilities programs at Brick Memorial High School and at Veterans Memorial Elementary and Middle Schools.
The autism program at Lanes Mill Elementary School was strengthened and developed, and a multiply disabled (MD) program was strengthened at Lake Riviera Middle School, she said.
Plans for the upcoming school year include the reorganization of the MD program at Brick High School, and another autism program would be added at Veterans Memorial Middle School, Hanson said.
Some costs for special needs students have increased. Over the past summer and fall, 60 students moved into the district with IEPs (Individual Education Program, a written document that is developed for each public-school child who is eligible for special education), which has resulted in the need for additional teacher aides in some classrooms.
“If a child moves in with an IEP, we must provide it,” Hanson said.
Board President Stephanie Wohlrab agreed.
“If we don’t give the students the supports that they need, students would then have to go out of district, which is so much more money, so this is what we need to do,” Wohlrab said.
The district is projected to lose $4.2 million in state aid for the 2020-2021 school year, said Business Administrator James Edwards, which he called “The fiscal cliff.”
Under the S-2 bill, which takes away some $25 million in state aid to Brick and other school districts over a seven-year period, a two percent tax increase is mandated to help fill the loss of state aid.
“This will amount to $2.2 million, so we’re going to have a $2 million minimum revenue hole – not to mention all the other expenses within the budget that inflationary costs impact – which will cause further cuts on top of that,” Edwards said.
“The 2021-20122 school year budget will be down $5.3 million, so that year will be even harder,” he added.
In other news, Board President Wolhrab read a prepared statement announcing that a Vision Planning Committee would be formed to review projects that stakeholders in the district identify as important to the continued growth and success of the school district.
“This is not a final determination; rather the first in a methodical, purposeful discovery process as we develop a vision for Brick Township Schools and seek to ascertain what can be accomplished,” she said.
She said that until inclusive focus groups could report conclusive findings and make recommendations to the Vision Planning Committee, the district would not move forward with a referendum.
Wohlrab was referring to a January 2020 approval by the Board for a $25,000 expenditure for pre-referendum services by Netta Architects if the district should decide to go ahead with a spending question to be put up for a public vote.
Wohlrab has repeatedly stated that nothing is off the table while addressing the loss in state aid that has resulted in staff and program cuts and the closure of Herbertsville Elementary School.
“The appointment of Netta Architects…to provide pre-referendum architectural services will not move forward at this time,” she said.
“To be abundantly clear: the district has not incurred any fees pertaining to a referendum until a potential referendum exists, she said. “To date, one has not.”
The next Board of Education meeting will be at 7 p.m. on March 19 at the Professional Development Center at the Veterans Complex.